The Church I attended throughout my childhood was small but vibrant. Each Sunday evening we would have a more informal service that was designed to ‘reach out’ to people from non-church backgrounds. I remember these services as a lot of fun, particularly as they were followed by a relaxed dinner in which we would all chat. One of the women in the Church had connections with the local First Australian community, and would regularly bring along a group of girls to these services. They were of similar age to me- perhaps around 11 or 12. Over a period of a few weeks, I noticed that I had caught the attention of one of this group, who would often stare at me at various junctures during the service. Was it possible that she liked me?
I certainly liked her. She had deep, searching brown eyes. I liked the way I would catch her smiling at me from across the Church. I pretended I didn’t notice for the most part- a mixture of disbelief that someone as pretty as her could actually like me and an equally strong desire to be seen as ‘cool’ and nonchalant. Even so, I would steal a gaze in her direction when I felt it was safe to do so.
Yet my ability to wistfully stare was hampered by the fact that she was always surrounded by her friends, who banded around her in what I perceived as a mildly protective stance. They used to stare at me too and would giggle in a way that made me feel as if there was something positively ridiculous about the simple fact of my existence. Again, I tried to ignore it, whilst simultaneously enjoying the attention. However, one evening after the service this group of friends approached me as I stood alone in the Church foyer. I noticed my future beloved (my imagination was working perfectly well) was not with them. Continuing to giggle, one of them shyly told me “My friend likes you.” And with that revelation, they skipped back to their friend and proceeded to assess my face for a reaction. I smiled at her and tried my best to display a combination of romantic interest and apathy- a difficult mix to get right.
Eventually, we all left for the night. I only saw the love of my life on one more occasion. Later that same year I attended the Warragul Show with some friends. It was the usual kind of country town deal; a blend of kitsch entertainment with exorbitant prices. Nevertheless, the whole town seemed to be there and it was the most fun one could reasonably hope to have as a grade Sixer. At some point, I noticed the same group of girls from the Church service. They were hovering around a stand selling cheap trinkets. I decided to keep back, too nervous to approach. I didn’t want to appear desperate.
Unbeknownst to me, the girls were already fully aware of my presence at the Show. In fact, at the precise moment I saw them they were helping my beloved choose a bracelet to give to me. Upon deciding, her friends raced up to me and said it was a gift to me from their friend who ‘really, really likes me.’ With that, they ran off, keen to observe my reaction from a distance. In pleasant and nervous shock, I unwrapped the tissue paper in my hand. The contents appeared to reveal nothing more than a crinkle of plastic. It seemed there was no bracelet after all. I looked toward the group of smirking girls, sighed, and deposited the object of my rejection in the nearest bin.
I went to stride away in defiance but was stopped in my tracks by the same group of girls, who had ran up to me before I could escape. “Why did you throw away the bracelet?” they asked. “She really likes you and chose that herself. HOW COULD YOU?” I was mortified and explained that I thought it was a cruel practical joke and also that I thought I was in love with their friend. I raced back to the bin and retrieved the crumple of plastic. On closer examination, there was indeed a small, faux-silver bracelet inside. One blink and you would miss it, as I indeed did.
With my heart overflowing with regret, I put on the bracelet and chased down the object of my love. For the first time, I approached her directly. I ran up to her and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before running away so that I could watch their response to my kiss from a safe vantage point. It was to be the last time I would ever see them. They were still laughing together and smiling back at me.